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From the start, the Canadian federal government’s Bill C-218 has been considered a near lock to pass. Nonetheless, we’ve seen enough go wrong with supposedly surefire gambling legislation to warrant some skepticism.
The time for doubts is at an end. The bill has passed the Senate with a vote of 57-20, with 5 abstentions. All that remains is the largely ceremonial step of Royal Assent.
Gambling in Canada takes place under provincial jurisdiction. However, federal law puts a few limits on it, and one of those is the exclusion of betting on the outcome of individual sporting events. C-218 straightforwardly redacts that bit of language, with the only wrinkle being that horse races will remain excluded in order to protect the country’s existing racing industry.
There have been several previous attempts to legalize single-game sports betting in Canada. They failed for various reasons, but one commonality is that they didn’t have support of all parties. Both the Conservatives and the left-leaning NDP have generally been in support of the idea, but the Liberals have historically been lukewarm on it. That changed due to the pandemic, as well as the explosion of legal sports betting in the US.
Indeed, another bill similar to C-218 was introduced by the Liberals themselves, specifically Federal Justice Minister David Lametti. Although it ended up being redundant, it was a clear sign that everyone would be on the same page this time around. The only remaining worry was that the effort would get interrupted by an early election, but that hasn’t happened.
The bill’s progress through the Senate wasn’t completely uneventful, however. Two potential amendments came up late in the process. Neither made it into the final bill, however.
The first came from Sen. Vernon White from Ontario, whose concern was with the potential for match fixing. This is, of course, one of the most frequent objections to legal sports betting. The usual counterargument is that making betting illegal doesn’t actually help, since offshore options exist, yet a legal market is easier to monitor for suspicious betting patterns.
White wasn’t opposed to the bill itself, however, but merely wanted new laws included to make match fixing expressly illegal. The bill’s Senate sponsor, David Wells of Newfoundland, said this would be unnecessary, since it would already be illegal under existing fraud laws. The rest of the Senate agreed, and voted the amendment down 24-38 with ten abstentions.
The second amendment came the same day from Sen. Mary Jane McCallum from Manitoba, using language supplied by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. Its aim was to allow First Nations gaming operators access to the legal market without going through provincial lotteries.
However, this is largely an issue for MCK, which already has its own regulatory body, the Kahnawà:ke Gaming Commission, and would like to continue using it. Many other First Nations groups support the bill as-is, according to Sen. Brent Cotter of Saskatchewan, who spoke against the amendment. Ultimately, it too was defeated 21-43 with 13 abstentions.
C-218 still requires Royal Assent to become law, but this is largely a formality. It’s Canada’s equivalent of a US bill getting signed into law, except that final approval comes from the Governor General rather than the President.
However, while a presidential veto is always a possibility, Royal Assent is more of a rubber stamp. The last time a Governor General declined Assent was in 1961. If you were betting on the bill failing at this stage, you’d get pretty long odds.
The question now therefore isn’t whether Canada will get legal sports betting. It’s when, and what it will look like.
In the US, even when the legislation sets out the structure of the market, it can take months for retail sportsbooks to open, and sometimes a year or more for online betting. Functionally, C-218 is less like a state-level sports betting bill, and more like the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in the US, though the latter happened through the courts, not the legislature.
That means provinces still have to decide whether and how to implement sports betting, craft their regulatory framework, and then go through the process of implementing it.
One thing that could happen quickly would the expansion of existing lottery sports betting to include single game bets. All the provincial lotteries have a sports betting product – Pro-Line or something similar – but which requires players to bet parlays. Accepting bets on a single selection would be the fastest and easiest route.
However, it’s clear that private companies want in on the action, including Canada’s own ScoreBet. Creating private online gambling markets is a much bigger lift, but Ontario is in the early stages of doing so. If its effort bears fruit, it could serve as a model for other provinces.